Over the past decade, the effect of mind training practices has generated a lot of interest in psychology and neuroscience research. Mindfulness and various forms of meditation have clear and measurable effects on health, particularly stress reduction. But that is only the beginning of the story.
LovingKindness meditation has a surprisingly rapid and long-lasting effect on positive emotions such as joy, love and contentment. In turn, these positive emotions increase feelings of well-being and enable people to use their personal resources better. There is also some evidence that children’s development benefits from having a parent who expresses these qualities.
The first major study I am aware of that examined the effect of metta meditation was conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (2008). They measured vagal tone and gathered data on emotions and social interactions, randomly assigning half of their subjects to learn lovingkindness mediation. Subjects practiced the meditation for just 10 minutes per day for two weeks. Vagal tone measures heart rate in relation to breathing. Higher vagal tone is associated with a good ratio of oxygenated blood, positive emotions and greater flexibility in physical, social and mental areas. Vagal tone is well studied in medicine and is usually thought to be a stable trait for individuals, rather like height.
One striking finding in Fredrickson’s research was that several months after the meditation workshops ended, the subjects who had meditated maintained significantly improved vagal tone. This is remarkable, for both the speed and endurance of the effect. Other studies have since confirmed and expanded these findings.
LovingKindness meditation done for just a few minutes a day brings a measurable change in vagal tone and is associated with an increase in positive emotions and feelings of well being. These effects last for many months even if the meditation practice does not continue. Keeping up with a regular LovingKindness practice, even if just once or twice a week, strengthens this effect.
Fredrickson, B., Coffey, K., Cohn, M., Finkel, S. & Pek, J. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.
Barbara Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of emotions and in positive psychology.